Sunday, March 30, 2003

Rebuilding Indians headed on right track

Cleveland Indians preview: Players say Cleveland will compete sooner than most people think

By Mark Curnutte
The Cincinnati Enquirer

The 2003 Cleveland Indians are far different than the teams that went to the postseason in six of the past eight seasons.

The Indians, who will open their season Monday at Baltimore, will start three rookie position players and two rookie pitchers in their five-man rotation.

The only holdover from the glory days of the 1990s is shortstop Omar Vizquel. Gone are the familiar names that made Cleveland a playoff regular: Roberto Alomar and Bartolo Colon, trades; Jim Thome, free agency; and Kenny Lofton and Juan Gonzalez, not re-signed.

As a result, the Indians' payroll dropped from $92 million in 2001 to $75 million last season before falling to roughly $52 million this year.

The Indians are rebuilding, but they are retooling quickly. Friday's and Saturday's victories over the Reds at Great American Ball Park gave the Tribe a 19-11 exhibition record.

"We feel very good about what we accomplished this spring," Cleveland first-year manager Eric Wedge said.

He reflects his team. At 34 years and 64 days on Monday, Wedge is the youngest major-league manager since Texas' Bobby Valentine in 1985.

"We're very excited about our younger players and expect the veterans to come out and perform the way they're supposed to," Wedge said. "When you talk about that mix, we're a little bit further along than most people think."

Besides Vizquel, the only other experienced players in the prospective lineup are designated hitter Ellis Burks and third hitter Matt Lawton. Another experienced veteran, Shane Spencer, will get plenty of action at first base and in left and right fields.

"I like the talent we have here," Lawton said.

Lawton spent his first 5 1/2 big-league seasons with Minnesota before coming to Cleveland before the 2002 season.

"It might take a few years. I've never seen a team coming out with all young guys, like we're doing this year, and do really well and win a championship right away," Lawton said. "But I think we're on the right track."

Two of the four starting infielders are rookies, and a third might as well be.

At first and second bases are rookies Travis Hafner and Brandon Phillips.

Third baseman Casey Blake - who went to spring training as a non-roster invitee - technically is not a rookie but has played in just 49 major-league games.

Blake was hitting .464 this spring coming into Friday's exhibition game against the Reds. Hafner had four home runs and 11 RBI. Phillips was a .286 hitter.

Rookie catcher Josh Bard hit .325 and showed maturity handling the pitching staff.

"We're young, comparing us to (American Central Division rivals) the Twins or White Sox, who have some veterans out there," Vizquel said. "We still have a good chance to compete. There is no sign of people here who don't believe we can't win."

Rookie Ricardo Rodriguez, who threw seven shutout innings at the Reds on Friday night, is the second man in the rotation. He finished the spring with a 3-2 record and a sub-3.00 ERA. Fellow rookie Jason Davis (1-0 with a 1.42 ERA in 19 spring innings) is the fourth starter.

The makeover is the work of second-year general manager Mark Shapiro. He took over from John Hart, whose 10-year run was the most successful in franchise history and included two American League championship teams.

"Mark Shapiro has done a great job of going out and re-supplying the minor-league system and retooling the major-league team over the winter time," said left-hander relief pitcher Terry Mulholland, who has 14-plus seasons of big-league experience. "... The big concern in Cleveland is how soon will the Indians be competitive again. I think that day is going to be a lot sooner than people think."

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